Black Graduation Ceremony celebrates tradition, legacy and achievement

By Chris Levister –

Amid thunderous applause and flashing cameras, 100 African-American graduates wearing traditional Kente stoles adjusted their gowns and mortarboards and marched proudly into the ninth annual Black Graduation Ceremony at U.C. Riverside.

During the processional, graduates sang, danced and strutted their stuff to the strains of the 1979 disco hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now”. The families and friends that filled the gymnasium of UCR’s Student Recreation Center broke out into song, dance and celebration. “No fear. No fear baby,” shouted a graduate clutching a small Bible.

“We are here to celebrate a momentous achievement in your life,” Chancellor Timothy White told the cheering crowd.

Sunday’s event presented by African Student Programs was an infectious mix of honor and party, billed as a rite of passage for African and African-American graduates and their families and friends to celebrate tradition, heritage, culture, legacy and achievement.

White told the graduates African- Americans at the school graduate at a rate of nearly 72 percent, up 4 percent from the campus-wide rate of around 68 percent and up over 30 percent from the national Black average.

He said the university has gained national prominence for attracting and graduating Black students in large numbers. “Nationally only about 40 percent of Black college students graduate within six years.”

That was music to the ears of Roy Overstreet, 76, who 53 years ago became the first African- American to graduate from the university.

It was frankly a ‘very lonely, very isolated’ experience, said Overstreet, who was introduced as a “pioneering leader”.

“Back then, I was the only Black student on campus. I didn’t feel welcome. I spent a lot of time alone, studying in my dorm room way up there on the hill,” he said. “A lot has changed. Looking out there, I see a diverse village of many cultures and ethnicities. I see hope, perseverance and achievement under those mortarboards.”

Overstreet urged the graduates not to fear the future.

“When I received my degree in 1958 the unemployment rate was 6 percent. Today it’s more than double for African-Americans. At a time when many workplaces are filled not just with glass ceilings, but brick walls, you can’t allow fear to eat away at the confidence it takes to take on new challenges. You’ve got to be fearless.”

Overstreet is a retired oceanographer who traveled from Oklahoma to speak at the event.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in physics from UCR, he earned a master’s degree in the 1960s. He became the country’s first Black oceanographer, working for nearly 30 years tracking oil spills and nuclear material in oceans.

He was joined by Zelma Ballard, 75, who in 1959 became the second African-American UCR graduate. Overstreet and Ballard were the only African- American students at UCR for a while.

“This ceremony honors those who are poised to shape our future and those who have paved the way,” said Ken Simons, director of African Student Programs. Keynote speaker Judge Richard T. Fields (Riverside Superior Court) charged the graduates to pay it forward as they change the world.

“Know no fear. If you want to become a doctor, become a doctor. If you want to become a judge, the time is now,” he said.

“As you climb those career ladders, just remember to reach down and pull others up behind you. Find folk who have so much potential, and so little opportunity – and do for them what UCR has done for you.”

In her Senior Address, graduate Lynisha Nash urged her classmates to persevere. “Act with determination not to be turned aside by thoughts of the past and fear of the future.”

“Simply being able to see the arc of a career and being willing to follow that path to different, unfamiliar and sometimes far-away places can be tough, especially for African-American graduates,” added anthropology major Shirfaye Morgan.

Ninety-three-year-old Sofia Jamison graduated from the University of Mississippi eleven years after James H. Meredith became the first Black student at the university. Meredith was barred from entering on September 20, 1962. Ms. Jamison traveled to Riverside to attend the Black Graduation Ceremony in honor of her nephew.

“He that have fruit must climb the tree,” said Jamison. All Americans have a responsibility “to offer every single child in this country an education that will make them competitive in our global world.”

“The right education will allow us to overcome the barriers that keep many Africans and African Americans from realizing our God-given potential,” she said.

“We’ve all worked hard to get to this point,” said Gigi Girma, whose degree is in sociology/ administrative studies. “But we couldn’t have done it without the sacrifices, support and encouragement from our families. We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

Neuroscience major, Ayodeji Okusanya, beamed and flashed a ‘thumbs up’ as he walked across the ceremonial stage festooned in traditional Pan African colors, red, Black yellow and green balloons.

“It’s a very, very good day in the village,” he said. “Persistence is what makes the impossible possible.”